Left Lhasa this morning, to start the long road out of Tibet, over the famous Sichuan-Tibet Highway. Took a wrong turn fairly early on, and ended up on the motorway/expressway – which is forbidden to motorcycles. Stayed on that for about 25 miles (no options to exit) – without anybody stopping me. Over a 5,000m altitude pass, rather ho-hum nowadays. Stopped for a cup of tea at a little Tibetan teahouse, which also had posters of the Cordyceps ‘mushroom’, the “super mushroom” we discovered some years ago – apparently this area is a source for it. The guy showed me a plastic shopping bag half-full of the dried stuff, and then I bought a single fresh cordyceps for 50 yuan. Not cheap stuff. BTW – I had a “yak meatball and caterpillar” soup last night, which had three smaller ones in it… and considering one of the benefits is supposed to be increasing oxygen intake, last night was the first time I’ve struggled to get to sleep with the altitude/low-oxygen-levels.
Overall, the day’s ride was rather pleasant – the aforementioned 5,000m pass, lots of miles following a river, etc. But I was super tired – falling asleep at times – so probably didn’t enjoy it as much as I could/should have. Eventually I pulled over, lay in the shade of a tree, and had a bit of an afternoon nap. Waking up twice as the free-roaming cows came dangerously close to trampling me. But eventually reached our destination of Linzhi safe and sound, and hoping for an early night.
So, after the emotional and physical highs/strains of Mount Everest – it was a relatively boring long day just getting to Lhasa. First day in quite some time where there was actual traffic to deal with – and a little too tired to really cope with what that means here (trucks overtaking each other – roaring towards you – flashing their headlights as they expect YOU to get out of the way). And then the city traffic of Lhasa – which was a bit more “fun”, once you bought into it… just weaving through everybody, ignoring red lights, riding like a local on their omnipresent silent electric scooters.
And then – 2 days of tourism. Potala Palace – we all went as a group, as it needs to be pre-booked. What I didn’t realise… once we got inside the ground-level complex, we all needed to go up to the actual Palace itself together, as a group, with a guide, through a checkpoint. And not realising that, I’d very quickly dropped out of the group, to avoid the constant prattling of the the guide. So, after I’d visited everything down on the ground, I tried to go up to the palace, and was firmly refused. And then discovered there are no exits down at the ground level either. After some time, I eventually escaped… and not really too bothered about going up to the actual Palace… I figured the best thing about the Palace was really the view of the sheer scale of the thing from outside anyway…. confirmed later by those who did tow the line, and went up with the group/guide.
Group dinner – as 2 more riders finish their trip here… excessive drinks had, and spent some time on the roof of the hotel, just watching the traffic.
Today – souvenir hunting… the one thing I really wanted was that most obvious of tourist tat which one normally sees in every single shop… a simple cotton t-shirt, with the local tourist attraction (Qomolangma/Mt-Everest) on it. Lhasa… does not sell tourist t-shirts. Hundreds of shops selling all sorts of other tat, generally buddhism-related stuff (prayer flags, prayer knots, robes, etc)… but I saw a total of 6 touristy-type-t-shirts in the entire city. None of them mentioning that glorious mountain.
The last two days have just been leading up to, and then visiting, Mount Everest. And, wow. In every respect, just absolutely amazing. Firstly – yesterday – just some riding to get to Dingri, our base for visiting Qomolangma. And while I’m sure there was some interesting stuff yesterday, I’ve forgotten it all after today’s experience…
Riding – wow. Just, awesome. I’m not exactly experienced, but a lot of the guys here are saying that compared to Stelvio Pass (apparently one of the best) – this was many-many times better. All I know is – I loved it. And, for the first time ever, dragged a foot-peg on the road… on knobbly tires. I’ll upload a screenshot of the map for the road once I get the chance. Somebody quoted “200 hairpin turns”… I genuinely don’t know if that was an exaggeration. Just… wow.
The Mountain. Well… I made a little bit of fun about Mt Kailash giving people spiritual feelings and what-not. And Everest – yeah, just another big rock with some snow on it. But goddamn if I didn’t feel goosebumps, shivers, a wee bit of a glow, and a couple of eyeball-leaks on the first sight of it. And, many times subsequently. What a magnificent big bastard. I wasn’t the only one suffering from the dust of the road when we stopped at the first decent viewpoint. And when we finally got to Base Camp (tourist Base Camp, not proper Climbers’ Base Camp, and… via bloody electric bus for the last 8 miles, because apparently in this very small area China does give a shit about the environment.. despite many bribe attempts and pleas to let us just ride that last 8 miles)… I spent about an hour more than everybody else just sitting there, looking at this goddamn mountain, towering over us when we’re already sitting at 5,200 metres. I also read some of my book, and made a tower of rocks. While the remaining Scotsman wore his kilt, I wore the traditional New Zealand black-woollen-singlet, Red-Bands (in jandal-form), and a hat that in hindsight could pass for Fred Daggs’. And, had my first attempt at a “live facebook video” – with zero preparation/practice/or-even-forethought – just spur of the moment “let’s see if this works”, and some random mumbling – don’t know if I even did it right or got the Magnificent Big Bastard in shot at any point-in-time. In short – Just… wow.
Left Ali/Gar/assorted-other-possible-names fairly late, for a relatively short day. Immediately hit a checkpoint, and stuck waiting for the last riders who’d taken a wrong turn immediately out of the hotel carpark.
Most of the checkpoints which we’d been told to expect, have disappeared in the two years since the last trip – so… that was about three pleasant surprises.
Got to a recommended point for viewing Mount Kailash in the afternoon. Apparently Kailash is the world’s “most venerated holy place” – presumably as 4 religions consider it to be pretty awesome, including Buddhism & Hindu – which have got to contribute a fair few people towards the “most venerated” metric. Never been climbed (apparently), death penalty if you try. In the 12th century, there was some sort of epic sorcery battle between a Buddhist guy and a Bon shaman – presumably with magic-beams of red-vs-blue, which fluctuated back-and-forth – until Buddhist-guy found some extra inner strength, gave it a last gasp, and finally killed the Bon guy. And that’s why you have heard of Buddhism, and not Bon. There should be a movie made of this. Anyway – we stopped, looked, and saw nothing but the clouds of snow which had been punishing us for the last couple of hours.
Nearby – and according to some theories, providing a big boost to the kudos of Kailash – is Lake Manasarovar. Apparently we normally stay in a dirt-floored “tea-house” there, but better accommodation was found nearby in a little place I believe is named Darchen, very near Mt Kailash. (Still fairly basic, and spent shivering inside while the snow came down) But, we paid a short visit to Lake Manasarovar – source of Asia’s four largest rivers – and the monastery nearby.
Today – a bit of a longer day… but in sunshine. (Still cold, but at least no snow). Being a clear day, did a bit of backtracking – and actually got to see Mount Kailash. It’s… a mountain. I felt peace and harmony.
High passes are becoming a little passe at this point, but there was a fairly early one at 5,234m – which is fairly high, and fairly cold. There was another one a little lower – only 4,920m – but a little more picturesque with plenty of prayer flags, many little piles of rocks-on-rocks with prayer flags, views, and some twisty roads.
And – ended the day in the town of Saga/Kyakyaru, where our rooms are on the 5th floor… and the electricity didn’t come on until 6pm. Carrying even just my small backpack and tankbag up those stairs, at this altitude… not cool. (I probably shouldn’t admit that the ground floor was “1st floor”, and there was no “4th floor” (4 being bad luck)… just 3 flights of stairs defeated me. In my defence – I did carry up all my stuff myself. Others had the hotel staff carry things up – and were still having a lengthy pause after a single floor.)
Out of one famously oppressed province, and into another. A few days of very quickly changing plans, less-than-ideal conditions, etc.
Left Kashgar, according to plan… albeit with a police escort – driving extremely slowly, despite the fact they seemingly wanted us to “just get out”. Some decent scenery and roads, especially on the ascent, peak, and descent – of a 3,300m pass. Then – arrived at a wee village, which was one option for the overnight stop. Spent an hour or two trying to get the local military/police commander to “approve” that… which was eventually declined. And – also declined… the next option for an overnight stay. Apparently – both places have military camps, which were fully occupied – and they were afraid we’d sneak and spy and what-not. So – rather late in the evening – we realise that instead of another 0 miles, or another 50 miles… we’ve got another 130 miles to ride. Which didn’t seem so bad… until that same military commander kept us blocked at his little checkpoint for another hour or so. Eventually – we got riding again – and discovered that this extra 130 miles included another checkpoint or two, a 4,950m pass (which was dirt/gravel road all the way up/down), and all those good things. And that dirt/gravel road up to the 4,950m pass – was in pretty poor light conditions by that point, with my goggles’ lenses having been changed to darkened ones just the other day. Anyway – we eventually got to our 3rd-choice accommodation at around 23:00, properly dark by then – and discovered that after being refused permission to stay in two places because they were in the same village as military camps… we were staying in an old/disused military barracks. As to the place-name… I don’t think it has one… the closest I could find on a paper map – was a tiny place named Sugät, near Shähidulla, about 75 miles east of Mazar.
Next morning – the plan was to put in a big day, effectively finish off what was originally supposed to be “today’s ride” (considering we’d already done half of it), plus the following days’ ride, plus the next day’s fairly short ride – in order to skip another nights’ “basic” accommodation, and instead eventually get an extra day/night in Lhasa. So – fairly early start – to be the very first vehicles through the checkpoint which was literally on our front door-step. The checkpoint doesn’t start processing us until a fair bit after “official opening time” – and then… does the most complete check of each rider/bike we’ve seen. Minutes spent on each rider, scrutinising face vs passport vs mobile phone (presumably central records). Then – a luggage check which actually involved pulling out bags, etc. Quite a long time spent before we could even start. But eventually got moving – into Tibet, over a 5,170m pass, some more checkpoints, and a fair bit of time spent riding along a high altitude plateau (5,368m at times, apparently) – in the snow. At each checkpoint, we had to wait until the entire group was gathered, including the local guide riding in the van… and at one such checkpoint, it was decided that the checkpoints and weather weren’t really making it sensible to put in the big 480 mile day we’d “planned”… and therefore – we stopped in the small village of Duoma/Domar instead. This place didn’t have enough beds, or any hot water – but we made do with mattresses on floors, some rather close-packed rooms, etc. Being cold, oh-so-cold, I was pleased not to be putting in the extra 140 miles.
Which pretty much put us back “on schedule” – for a short ride into a larger town/city – Ali/Gar/Shiquanhe (nobody seems to know the actual/official names for places around here… I don’t know if that’s because of China trying to change Tibetan names into Han-Chinese ones, or what) – for some “proper” hotel rooms, with hot showers, internet access, and little oxygen machines on the walls (a few people have had problems with altitude sickness).
Anyway – some photos, all clumped together at the end, as usual – as I’m rushing these updates out – and can’t be bothered placing them nicely in the correct places within the narrative.
Eventually got all the China-entry process sorted, with only a couple more hours of sitting around in a government compound. Thursday 9am – rode back out to the border/customs/etc area, but a new compound – where they checked engine numbers. And then – sat around for a couple of hours, before riding back to hotel… leaving afternoon to explore Kashgar. Friday 5pm – finally received our China registration “plates” for each bike, and a provisional China Driving Licence – many with mistakes. Two have the photos swapped around, and Dickie is listed on his as being female.
But – Kashgar. yesterday, had a wander about – found a wee bar in the middle of the hat bazaar selling… 2 Epic beers from NZ, and one of my favourite scottish craft beers – the classic Punk IPA. Rather pleased… as were the bar staff/owners when they discovered I was from Xin-Xi-Lan. Other than that… I don’t know how much I should write about Kashgar, the Xinjiang province, and the “Uighur Problem” in general. When we first visited/lived-in China many years ago – I was quite surprised at how “open” it was, and how easy it was to travel around… I don’t think we had any paperwork/identities checked a single time. Xinjiang – is not like that. This is very much a police state… it is scarily similar to the fictional America in The Man in the High Castle. The police here are most definitely not here to “Protect and Serve”. They are a boot poised over the throat, ready to stamp down on the slightest hint of rebellion. And talking to a German guy I met at lunch today – Kashgar isn’t even the worst place.
It seems that every Chinese Han shopkeeper is effectively deputised into the police – and beyond having gated doors/windows, also have police-issued riot shield, helmet, flak-jacket; and self-provided blunt weapon (I’ve seen axe-handles, chunks of timber, and metal bidents (see below)), all ready-to-hand. Riding around the roads – there are near-constant military and police checkpoints. Walking the streets – there are MANY surveillance cameras. And a heavily fortified police station on nearly every block. Police are everywhere, with many carrying U-shaped bidents – obviously designed to just keep somebody beyond arms-length, or push them up against a wall. Apparently some of these have stun-gun capability built in, but I haven’t seen that yet. The local provider of razor-wire must be a wealthy man. And obviously, taking photos to show the extent of what I’m talking about is… problematic, and rather unwise.